Wind Energy Takes Flight In The Heart Of Texas Oil Country
Georgetown, Texas, is a conservative town in a conservative state. So it may come as something of a surprise that it’s one of the first cities in America to be entirely powered by renewable energy.
Mayor Dale Ross, a staunch Republican who attended President Trump’s inauguration, says that decision came down to a love of green energy and “green rectangles” — cash.
When Georgetown’s old power contract was up in 2012, city managers looked at all their options. They realized wind and solar power are more predictable; the prices don’t fluctuate like oil and gas. So, a municipality can sign a contract today and know what the bill is going to be for the next 25 years.
That’s especially appealing in a place like Georgetown, where a lot of retirees live on fixed incomes.
“First and foremost it was a business decision,” Ross says.
City leaders say the debate over renewables never even mentioned climate change, a wedge issue in Texas politics.
It’s not just Georgetown that is defying expectations of conservatism and renewable energy. As a state, Texas is by far the No. 1 producer of wind energy in the United States; it produces more wind energy than the next three states combined. In fact, if it were its own country, Texas would be the fourth-largest largest wind-producing country in the world by the end of 2017. Ross says former Texas Gov. Rick Perry deserves the credit: “I truly believe he was a visionary.”
Today, Rick Perry is the head of the U.S. Department of Energy. At his swearing-in last week, Perry described what President Trump told him when he offered him the job: “I want you to do for American energy what you did for Texas.”
If that request extends to wind power — after all, Trump is seen as emphasizing fossil fuels, with his support for coal and through his Cabinet picks — the U.S. can expect a further explosion in wind energy production and in the jobs needed to support the industry.
Already, the fastest-growing job in the U.S. is wind turbine technician. Though the absolute numbers are small — 4,400 in 2014 — it’s growing at more than double the pace of the next closest profession.
That explosion is apparent in Sweetwater, Texas, which sits on a vast open plain — an area that the town’s former mayor, Greg Wortham, describes as the wind capitol of the world. In every direction, row after row of 300-foot-tall wind turbines dot the horizon.
The construction and maintenance of these three-armed behemoths has created a new industry in town. Heath Ince teaches in the wind program at Texas State Technical College, Sweetwater.
“A lot of people don’t realize how physically demanding and even mentally challenging it can be at times,” Ince says of the job maintaining machinery in an environment that is scalding hot in the summer and frigid in the winter.
And yet, the program has doubled in size since its launch, to 52 students from 25 in 2008. Demand is high — renewable energy companies are hiring Ince’s students, sometimes before they even finish the program — and the salaries are good, too: Median pay in 2015 was about $50,000.
In policy circles, the debate surrounding renewable energy and fossil fuels often pits them against one another. Liberals are supposed to support solar and wind; conservatives are supposed to support oil and gas.
In Texas, the attitude is “all of the above.”
“Any time there’s an opportunity to put a little extra income in people’s pockets, we’re all for it,” says Russ Petty, who owns a print shop in Sweetwater and whose relatives have been ranchers in the area for generations.
The income derived from leasing a single turbine varies. But Wortham, the former mayor, says $10,000 per turbine per year is a good estimate.
That’s significant, says developer Monty Humble.
“For a land owner, a ranching family to have the opportunity to produce oil and gas or the opportunity to have a wind turbine or a solar farm, it may well mean that another generation can remain on the land,” Humble says.